XXI.2 March + April 2014
Page: 24
Digital Citation

Efficiency: Time and time again?

Rogério de Paula

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Why do we design technology? What are the core values that underlie our design decisions? These questions have always fascinated me, not only because they are important practical considerations in any design pursuit, but also because they speak to the underlying morals, cultural values, and politics that influence how we carry out our work as designers.

These questions in fact came about as I was preparing to write this column. As I began to juggle all my commitments, deadlines, and to-do's, I started to reflect on the ways that computing technologies (yes, our everyday, beloved, and unforgiving technologies) play a part in all of this. In particular, I questioned whether these technologies were actually helping me find a balance or just helping me become more "efficient" in going through an increasingly larger set of tasks.

As I reflected on this question, what I found was an ever-growing number of tasks that my everyday technologies enable me to carry out myself. (How empowering! Well, not so fast.) In a recent article in The Atlantic, Ian Bogost describes today's technological realities in the workplace as a condition of "hyperemployment," in which technologies (he analyzes in particular the role of email) have enabled more and more internal outsourcing flows [1]. That is, email—most of it unsolicited—has become a normative technology that creates obligation on the part of those receiving it. It is cheap and easy now to delegate tasks to others, be they employees, colleagues, customers, or people in general. In particular, under the rubric of more productivity and lowered costs, companies have embraced such ideas and used technologies to outsource tasks internally to their employees. According to Bogost, online life (and life in general, I would argue) feels like a constant flow of exchanged requests (i.e., emails, notifications, direct messages, favorites, and invitations) and an intricate set of connections (i.e., followers, friends, likes, etc.).

Today's information technologies have colonized various aspects of our everyday lives, bringing together incessant and unbounded demands. For one, the emergence of mobile computing has erased the physical, temporal, geographical, and sometimes moral boundaries of technology access and use. Hence, the expectations for responses to emails, alerts, and notifications are no longer limited to the workplace. Our evenings and weekends have become this extra time we have to get things done. More interestingly, as people start to respond to those requests at those times, they increasingly become part of the norm. The fact that we are all now connected online has created the need (if not the duty) of keeping things always up-to-date. Even when we are sleeping, our smartphones are now counting the time to alert us when to wake up, greeting us with 20 or so email messages received overnight.

It is interesting how different notions of time have intrinsically influenced the designs of information technology. All together, our experiences with time have been greatly affected by those technologies. Beneath a great deal of design solutions and discourses lies the (normative) notion of time as a commodity—a thing that has to be saved, well spent, and efficiently managed. Particularly in the corporate world, the main driver of technology rests on the rhetoric of improved productivity.

As designers and technologists, we embraced the challenge of overcoming the "productivity paradox" [2]. We set out to investigate and come up with design solutions that make our everyday activities (work and even leisure) more efficient and effective. While productivity has a connotation of efficient organization of things, it also has an economic connotation of cost reduction. Time and again, both were conflated in the ways in which we designed technologies. However, by and large our efforts seem to have been deployed to address the latter—how to reduce costs by making things more efficient.

We come, then, to the original question: Why do we design technology? Despite the almost infinite number of articulated reasons and goals we may try to address with our design solutions, there seems to be one underlying, fundamental value that permeates all: time. To a great extent, the design of information technologies has been fundamentally about managing time (our own and others'), from the organization of time to the effective use of time to being available anytime (and anywhere). Paradoxically, as we succeed in designing solutions that make tasks more efficient and accessible, these tasks seem to have increasingly overtaken all the time we had left (be it working, leisure, or other).

We even seem to have forgotten the fundamental notion of free time, or leisure. Even our free time is supposed to be populated with meaningful and worthwhile activities. We no longer can afford to waste our free time so we find ways to make it worth the time. Can I simply do nothing? The economist John Maynard Keynes asserted that developed societies would be able to replace work with leisure as a result of widespread wealth and surplus, as Bogost reminds us [1]. But society's desire for more has replaced leisure with work (or business). Is this what we really want for our lives and our societies? (It is fascinating to watch those commercials about personal financial investments that allow us to enjoy our time, later, at retirement. But not quite yet.)


Thus, I would like to propose studying time as a fundamental value rather than simply as a commodity, in a critical way. For one, we are already building the methodological tools for exploring this challenge, such as Batya Friedman et al.'s value-sensitive design [3]. Others have taken a critical perspective on the design values embedded in everyday technologies as well as on the design processes and discourses that come to create such technologies [4,5,6,7]. They suggest that we should not focus on the design (and development) of technology as an end in itself, but as a means to critically explore the underlying questions about technology and humanity.

Now we are left with the question of what values, and consequently society, we want to enable.

back to top  References

1. Bogost, I. Hyperemployment, or the exhausting work of the technology user. The Atlantic. Nov. 8, 2013;

2. Brynjolfsson, E. The productivity paradox of information technology. Comm. of the ACM 36, 12 (1993), 66–77.

3. Friedman, B., Kahn, P.H., and Borning, A. Value sensitive design and information systems. In Human-Computer Interaction and Management Information Systems: Foundations. M.E. Sharpe, 2006, 348–372.

4. Dourish, P., Finlay, J., Sengers, P., and Wright, P. Reflective HCI: Towards a critical technical practice. Proc. CHI'04 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2004, 1727–1728.

5. Gaver, W.W., Boucher, A., Pennington, S., and Walker, B. Cultural probes and the value of uncertainty. Interactions 11, 5 (2004), 53–56.

6. Suchman, L. Agencies in technology design: Feminist reconfiguration. Gendered Innovations in Science and Engineering. L. Schiebinger, ed. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2005.

7. Bardzell, S. and J. Bardzell. Towards a feminist HCI methodology: Social science, feminism, and HCI. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2011, 675–684.

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Rogério de Paula is a research manager at IBM Research, Brazil, where he leads the Social Enterprise Technologies Group, an interdisciplinary group that explores the new frontiers of social, smart technologies in the context of large-scale organizations.

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2014 ACM, Inc.

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